Socialism with Chinese Characteristics: An Explainer

There is significant misunderstanding of the term ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics [zhongguo tese shehuizhuyi]’.

Many foreigners – Marxists included – think it is a code for capitalism. Others think it means the complex intersections between Marxism and Chinese culture, while others think it is an empty term that can be filled with whatever content you want.

The Chinese understanding is different but actually very clear.

The specific term comes from Deng Xiaoping in 1982:

In carrying out our modernization programme we must proceed from Chinese realities [zhongguo de shiji]. Both in revolution and in construction we should also learn from foreign countries and draw on their experience, but mechanical application of foreign experience and copying of foreign models will get us nowhere. We have had many lessons in this respect. We must integrate the universal truth of Marxism with the concrete realities of China, blaze a path of our own and build a socialism with Chinese characteristics [zhongguo tese de shehuizhuyi] – that is the basic conclusion we have reached after reviewing our long history.

Further, the specific meaning of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ entails the ‘reform and opening up [gaige kaifang]’, which has been underway since 1978. Again, this is not a ‘reform’ away from socialism, but something quite different. This is reform after a revolution, undertaken in light of the revolution (as Lenin already argued).

Above all, let me stress that Deng Xiaoping’s genius was that he understood that socialism is not about everyone being equal, which really means that everyone is equally poor. Instead, it entails unleashing the forces of production, as Marx and Engels already argued. In other words, socialism is about improving the social and economic lives of everyone.

So this is the specific Chinese characteristic of socialism.

But the question remains, as some seem to think, whether Deng Xiaoping marks a significant departure from Mao on this matter (another version of the betrayal or ‘Fall’ narrative’). As one would expect, there are different stresses and emphases in their approaches, depending in the specific circumstances involved in constructing socialism. But on this matter, we can identify the broader framework of Deng Xiaoping’s approach (and that of later Chinese leaders) already in Mao’s thought.

This initial idea already appears in Mao’s work from 1938:

There is no such thing as abstract Marxism, but only concrete Marxism. What we call concrete Marxism is Marxism that has taken on a national form, that is, Marxism applied to the concrete struggle in the concrete conditions prevailing in China [zhongguo tedian], and not Marxism abstractly used … consequently, the sinification of Marxism [makesizhuyi de zhongguohua] that is to say, making certain that in all its manifestations it is imbued with Chinese characteristics [zhongguo texing], using it according to Chinese peculiarities [zhongguo tedian] – becomes a problem that must be understood and solved by the whole party without delay.

To begin with, we find the idea of Chinese characteristics, which may also be translated as distinguishing features (zhongguo tedian) or distinguishing properties (zhongguo texing).

Equally important is the crucial phrase, sinification of Marxism (makesizhuyi de zhongguohua). This phrase is usually translated as ‘Chinese Marxism’, but as is the case with translations, some of the meaning is lost and other meanings attach to it. ‘Chinese Marxism’ tends miss the crucial meaning of the word hua: to transform. Mao’s text is talking about Marxism transformed in light of a Chinese situation, or in terms of Chinese characteristics. So it is better to translate as ‘sinification of Marxism’.

Obviously, the general idea derives from Mao, but what fascinates me is the way Deng Xiaoping interprets the term. It refers not so much to the influence of Chinese culture and history, but to unleashing the forces of production in light of the specific, historical conditions of China.

All of this means that transforming Marxism in light of Chinese conditions – that is, socialism with Chinese characteristics – actually comes out of the Marxist tradition. As Engels, Lenin and others were fond of saying, ‘Marxism is not a dogma, but a guide to action’.

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5 thoughts on “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics: An Explainer

  1. This might seem like a dumb question, but what is meant by “unleashing the forces of production”? What exactly does that entail?

    Also, does equality have to mean that everyone is equally poor, or, depending on the overall wealth of the society, maybe it means that everyone is equally rich, or moderately affluent?

    Does “improving the social and economic lives of everyone” mean that those who are poor get to be a little less poor while millionaires become multi-millionaires, or multi-millionaires get to become billionaires while there are still poor people struggling to get by?

    I realize these changes and improvements won’t happen overnight, but shouldn’t there be a relatively narrow income / wealth gap that is maintained. Should extreme poverty be allowed to exist side by side with extravagant wealth? I’m not suggesting, by the way, that in the early stages of constructing socialism that incomes should be perfectly equal.

    1. I am pondering how Mao’s contradiction theory applies here (which is central to government planning and indeed people’s everyday lives through the way Marxism has become part of Chinese culture). One of the problems even with Hu Jintao’s approach (before Xi) was the idea that the rich would drag others up with them. Obviously didn’t work so well, and people became quite sceptical of the party under Hu. Xi has shifted the focus significantly, with big projects to deal with the imbalance between a well-off east and a relatively poor west – think Belt and Road, which has this as one of its main aims. And a key plank of the xiaokang society (between 2021 and 20149) is that as few people as possible will be in poverty. Already 700 million have been lifted out of poverty, and the next five year plan aims at 40 million more, mainly in rural areas in the west. Add to this the most extensive anti-corruption campaign ever (more than one million party officials and leaders have been demoted, lost their jobs or gone to prison) and myriad laws restricting extravagant expenditure and you get the picture. The bog focus is on living modestly. Further – obviously pretty complex – the non-corrupt billionaires in question are very much part of the party structure, with a focus on promoting not so much their owl wealth but on promoting China overseas with huge grants (Jack Ma, for instance, gave $20 million to my university in Australia for underprivileged students in Australia). Still heaps of problems, but my sense is that is moving in the right direction.

    2. I meant to add that ‘unleashing the forces of production’ in Marx already meant that capitalism has constrained such forces in many ways, but that communism (he did not distinguish it from socialism) would remove those contraints. Now, Marx’s approach was theoretical, since he never experienced socialism in power. But it entails that methods used under capitalism would also have a place in socialism, although geared for very different purposes. You can see this in Stalin’s approach and in China in a different way since Deng. The best work by Stalin on this stuff actually comes quite late, ‘Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR’. Surprising stuff, since many elements of what what are often thought of as ‘capitalist’ appear here, such as commodity production, the law of value and the continuation of contradictions between forces and relations of production. But they take on a rather different meaning under socialism. He also mentions elsewhere that equalisation is not what socialism is about, and – I love this – that under capitalism the majority do not enjoy private property, but under socialism they do. What in the world does he mean by this? The enjoyment by all of their private property can only take place in the context of the dominant public ownership of production. As for Deng, the development of Marx’s insight takes on yet another dimension. As you can see, it becomes complex and fascinating.

  2. As PC says in his comment, it is becoming hard to equate the amount of Chinese millionaires/billionaires within a Communist system where many people still live on the poverty line.
    Regards, Pete.

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